Question and Answer After Remarks at Trinity College, DublinJohn D. Negroponte, Deputy Secretary of State
November 17, 2008
QUESTION: I want to ask one local question and then two brief international questions. At the moment we are at a turning point here in Ireland. It looks like we may be hosting a second Lisbon referendum. In the run-up to what may turn out to be a second Lisbon referendum the provenance of a particular political group here lead by Declan Ganley called Libertas. It has been alleged repeatedly that Declan Ganley and/or his Libertas group received support from the U.S. government. Has the government or the Bush administration provided any support either financial, moral or otherwise to Declan Ganley and the Libertas movement? I think it would be useful if we could clarify that. My second question…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: The answer is no.
QUESTION: None whatsoever?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: None.
QUESTION: Thanks for clarifying that. The other two questions I have, I will put them together. As a retired Army officer, like many of my colleagues, we watched with great interest developments post 9/11. How would the world cope with (inaudible) terrorist threat-- terrorist organization that struck without warning at civilian targets in a highly densely populated urban center—a franchise that would operate internationally? But, for us it wasn’t a new concept. We had been dealing with the provisional IRA for some period of time. This was a concept that we were used to. We were interested to see how the United States and her international allies would deal with the situation. At the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland—you’re traveling there tomorrow—it is a very small land area with a population of approximately 750,000. At the height of the Troubles there were 60,000 British soldiers in the form of regular British Army units, Ulster defense regiments, part-time Ulster defense units, royal constabulary (inaudible)--60,000 armed personnel in Northern Ireland. At one point in South Armagh you had one British soldier for every 6 civilians. At that point we knew that there were only 200 or 300 active members of the provisional IRA. It failed militarily. It did not work. So we were staggered…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Do you mean the strategy didn’t work?
QUESTION: Right. We were staggered when we saw the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq with a force of approximately 250,000 troops for a country with a land area greater than France and with a population of approximately 22,000,000. We thought it could never succeed. So what I would like to know is; what was the thinking? What was the strategy behind that invasion? We couldn’t see how such a force could possibly provide a secure and stable environment for the citizens of Iraq post invasion. That is the first question. The second question is (laughter from audience)…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: The answer will probably be briefer than the question.
QUESTION: Following on with the elections in Iraq we are watching with great interest the war in Afghanistan. I personally think the war in Afghanistan is a far more serious issue. I think that the threat that confronts not just the United States but particularly the EU is a very serious one. We eventually got around the table and negotiated with the Provisional IRA. Do you see a point at which the U.S. government might sit down and negotiate with the Taliban in order to find some lasting settlement for Afghanistan?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, first of all, look, they are great questions. They really are. Since we are in an academic atmosphere, let me say that before I try to answer your question directly, let me digress for a moment. Having been involved in Viet Nam, and having been involved in Iraq, and being here with students, one of the things I can assure you. Every single night of those three and a half years that I spent in Viet Nam and every single night that I spent in Iraq, we were around some table, smoking some cigars or cigarettes, drinking some wine or whiskey or whatever debating amongst ourselves—all of us experts—on whether we were winning or whether we were losing, what was happening, and what was the best way to go about what we were doing. My first point is simply to say, there is no truth that has been handed down on these questions.
Another point I would make is that it seems that the world is fated when it encounters situations like this to end up feeling its way through each of these situations and that the previous wisdom, while it may be useful in some general way, tends not to be applicable or tends not to be applied with the new situation. So, almost invariably, these situations develop a kind of character and nature of their own. So, they are not all analogous. They are handled differently and each one is sort of a case study of it.
On your question about what the strategy was, I didn’t plan our strategy in Iraq. I was Ambassador to the United Nations at the time. So, I didn’t have anything to do with the planning of the military strategy. It’s clear to me in retrospect, from having gone there a year later, a year and a half later, as the Ambassador and dealing with the situation that I found that what the thought was that we were going to be able to go into Iraq, quick, efficiently with this kind of a lightning strike and depose the government (which we were able to do quite quickly). That took a matter of days not months or years. I want to say it here, that somehow the rest would be relatively easy. I think that what was not expected was that the army and the Saddam revolutionary guard and others would fade into the countryside and become the core of a subsequent insurgency. One of the most vivid illustrations of the fact that we didn’t quite appreciate the resistance that we would encounter through this kind of excursion was that we immediately moved to what we called a reconstruction program. We thought we were in, at the time, we behaved as though we thought we were in a post conflict situation. We went to our Congress and asked them for funds for “reconstruction”.
When I got there I didn’t think that we were in reconstruction at all. I thought that we were right in the middle of a burgeoning insurgency. It actually caused me to make some recommendations to Washington about how we needed to alter our assistance strategy given the fact that we were not in a reconstruction phase as yet. So, I think there were probably some very optimistic calculations made about what kind of situation we would confront when we first decided to go in.
I agree with you on the importance of the situation although I think Iraq is important for the reasons I mentioned in my speech. Al Qaeda, once it got a foothold there, and if you read some of the writings of the al Qaeda leadership, especially a very notable letter by the deputy head of al Qaeda that was written in July of 2005 by Ayman al-Zawahiri that he wrote to al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq at the time where he lays out a whole strategy of al Qaeda for Iraq. And it says, if we succeed in Iraq it will become the platform for our movement to the Levant. That was going to be the next step—Syria, Lebanon and Jordan and then it was going to go beyond. So, I think that it is important that they have been dealt the set-back that I mentioned in my speech.
But, on Afghanistan, I think the important thing now since it’s a large country—I don’t think Europe and the United States are in a position to send tens of thousands of military troops there. I think we have to focus on improving the capabilities of the Afghan security forces. We have a plan to support the increase of their security forces which is ongoing at the moment. I think with that and perhaps some increased effort on our part the situation can be made better. I think it’s difficult but it is certainly not hopeless. I think with the requisite amount of assistance and support from the international community, I think Afghanistan can move forward in a positive way.
QUESTION: Would you negotiate or….
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Oh, that’s right.
QUESTION: Would you negotiate with the Taliban?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: As I said earlier with respect to Iraq, the issue is not really the label so much as whether the people are moderate or extremists, whether they’re, as in the case of the Taliban, either reconcilables or irrconcilables. Are they people who want to talk about a political outcome or do they just have some kind of destructive agenda? If they are willing to talk to the government about finding a way for some people associated with the Taliban to join the Afghan political process and participate within their constitutional system, I don’t see any problem with that. I’m not sure that’s what the Taliban who want to talk…I think what the Taliban who want to talk want to do right now, which is a bit of surmise on my part, is to use the fact of some kind of discussion to discourage the security forces from resisting them.
QUESTION: So, what you are saying is that you wouldn’t talk unconditionally but that if certain conditions were met it might be possible?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, I wouldn’t talk to them except with a very clear idea of where it is I wanted to go--not with an open-ended agenda.
Call for questions from the audience.
QUESTION: Since the invasion of Iraq there has been more interaction with Syria so my question is are you hopeful better relationship in the future with Syria?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Not at this particular moment, I am not particularly hopeful. Our relationship with Syria has had its ups and downs. Right after 9/11 it was quite good because we had some quite good cooperation on counter-terrorism and things like that. And, as you know, Syria was allied with the coalition effort in the first Gulf war to throw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. But, they were not supportive of our efforts in Iraq the second time. I’d say, if anything, Syria has gravitated a bit more into the orbit of Iran during the past several years. And, probably a low point was when Rafiq Hariri of Lebanon, the prime minister of Lebanon, was murdered and there still exists a strong suspicion that the Syrian government was behind that assassination and I don’t think that the relationship and the attitudes in our country have quite recovered from that. Although it has not yet been proven, I don’t think the relationship has yet recovered from that suspicion.
I’d say it is a mixed picture. We don’t have an Ambassador there now. We have a Charge d’Affairs. There are still a lot of things that trouble us about Syria’s behavior. As you know they host various Palestinian rejectionist groups in Damascus. They provided some support to foreign fighters transiting Syria to get to Iraq. In fact, they were the main conduit. Although, that part I would acknowledge has gotten better. I think Syria has cracked down on them somewhat, not so much out of concern for Iraq or because of pressure from us but because they have a concern about extremist Sunnis in their own country, the Muslim Brotherhood and others because the regime, as you know, is not a Sunni regime. It’s a very small minority Shi’a sect that governs Syria. So, they have a lot of complicated issues with their own people. I’d say it’s a mixed picture. Syria has an interest in improving its relations with not only us but the Arab world because they are kind of isolated in the Arab world. If those relationships could improve then they might be able to gravitate a little bit out of the Iranian orbit but they would have to stop some of these behaviors that I mentioned before. I think that there’s a chance of that really happening.
QUESTION: Do you think that the disapproval with the Bush government is due to the fact that some Americans may have forgot in some way about 9/11? And the second question…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Maybe what with respect to 9/11?
QUESTION: They forgot in some way and that is why they are against invading Iraq (inaudible). And the second question is if all diplomacy fails with Iran do you think the new government will leave Israel to deal alone with the problem?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: So the second question was if all…
QUESTION: If all the diplomacy fails with Iran…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Would we leave Israel to deal unilaterally with the issue?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Those are good questions. The first one…look I can’t explain to you exactly the whys and the wherefores of American popularity abroad and attitudes toward the Bush administration. I certainly think in our own country while we had some initial support for our invasion into Iraq, once the war went on and we suffered substantial casualties and the costs of the war increased I think the popularity definitely declined. I think that probably was a key factor affecting attitudes towards the administration. If somebody told me that was the reason for attitudes towards the administration abroad I would be hard pressed to debate that. I have noticed, and we try to track public opinion around the world and we have polling and so forth, depending on how much confidence you place in some of these polls, it looks like in some parts of the world attitudes are starting to improve again. I think with the outcome of our election now you also some real optimism about the transition to a new administration.
On the question on Iran, I think that the basic answer to your question is that we really want to resolve this by diplomatic means and the kinds of pressures that we want to bring to bear on Iran are not military pressures. They are through economic sanctions, through UN Security Council resolutions and we have made quite clear to our Israeli friends that that is the kind of approach that we strongly favor. We are not advocates of some kind of a military adventure against Iran which could have all kinds of unintended consequences and unpredictable consequences. Our president has always said that this is an issue where we would never totally rule out the possible use of force but he has also stressed at the same time his focus is on diplomacy.
QUESTION: In the closing weeks of the Clinton administration there were missile attacks on Baghdad and some commentators here have expressed a view of a possibility that in the closing weeks and months of the Bush administration there may be missile strikes on Tehran…
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well…
QUESTION: Could you answer that?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: I just ask you to think that through and what it could imply vis a vis Iran. Iran is a powerful, wealthy country in a strategic location on the straits of Hormuz—think about it—opposite Saudi Arabia…
QUESTION: You’re trying to say it’s unlikely.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, I am just telling you…Why don’t you do a little war game in one of the political science classes here on what the different actors might do under that scenario?
QUESTION: We have been surprised before.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, yeah.
QUESTION: My question is about Palestine. Do you think that the problem is necessarily one sided? Do you think Israel could do more to help the situation?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Yes, there are probably always things that Israel could do more of. There is no question about this—a little more restraint with respect to the settlements and so on and so forth. But, what I think I would say is that everybody has come a pretty long way here in the last few years. I know that the Middle East peace process is very slow. At the UN when I was there, in fact I had pretty much to do with the initiative, we promoted resolution 1397 which affirmed the vision of a Palestinian state living side by side at peace with Israel. That was the first time that we associated ourselves with that kind of vision so explicitly stated. Israel is now committed to that. The major actors in Israel are now committed to the Palestinian state and they themselves have been having these extensive bilateral contacts in the last year or two. With this process that we have set up, the (inaudible) process and meeting in Sharm el Sheikh, I think that there is a certain amount of momentum to the peace process. I think it is reasonable to expect that over the next couple of years that they’ll come to some kind of successful conclusion. I really do.
QUESTION: I have two questions. (inaudible comments) when you talk about the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t you really open a can of worms that allowed the Taliban in? My real question is, or my question is how much of the reason you invaded Iraq was actually to save democracy, how much was for oil for America and how much of it was for backing Israel (inaudible)?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: You’re asking about Iraq right?
QUESTION: Yes I am asking how much of it is democracy, spreading democracy in the world, and how much for oil and how much backing Israel?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well…
QUESTION: I have a second question.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Let me try to answer…
QUESTION: My second question is (inaudible) Iran nuclear weapons and what if Israel has nuclear weapons (inaudible)?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, I guess on your second question I don’t think Israel has ever said, like the President of Iran has—he said that Israel should be annihilated. Not only Israel is concerned but I think the region as a whole, the other states in the Middle East, I think would be very concerned with a nuclear armed Iran. I guess, in the end, it’s the UN Security Council that has come out and passed these five resolutions that I mentioned that call on Iran to cease their program. I think one of the things that stands up is the question that I put rhetorically in my speech, which is why if they are offered this opportunity of better relations with the West, the possibility of some kind of normalization with the United States if only they would give up the enrichment of uranium and we would even try to find ways of insuring that they got the enriched uranium that they needed for their nuclear energy program under some safe-guarded arrangement. Why do they reject that out of hand?
Now, on the Israeli question I have to say that they haven’t threatened to annihilate any of their neighbors and I think in the context of overall Middle East peace, including some kind of political arrangement with their neighbors, right now they have relations with Egypt and Jordan, but if they had them also with the other neighbors, Lebanon and Syria, and had a more peaceful arrangement throughout the Middle East, I think that they would then be willing to put the nuclear issue on the table for discussion.
On your question about the motivations for the war, okay, look this is a decision that made by the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense. As I mentioned, I was not in the room when those issues were debated but I can assure you that it was not about resources. Recall the circumstances at the time. There was a belief, it turned out to be ill-founded, but there was a belief and it was a sincere belief that Iraq had a WMD development program, that they were in violation of the pertinent UN Security Council resolutions and that they had a beastly dictatorship. Those were the motivations. The motivations were political. They certainly were not resource related and they were not driven by Israel.
QUESTION: This is a different question, which of the 43 presidents of the United States do you most admire?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Which of the 43 Presidents do I most admire? Oh, that’s a great question. I think there’s two. In this century it is Franklin Roosevelt because he got us through a depression and a world war. And, if I told you Abraham Lincoln because he got us through the Civil War, I think those would be the two—a republican and a democrat, by the way.
QUESTION: In light of Russian troops going into Georgian territory, how do you see US-Russian relations progressing over the next four years?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Yeah, tough question. To be honest with you, it’s one we ask ourselves. We’re disappointed by what they did in Georgia. We don’t think it’s right. And, if indeed they genuinely felt somewhat provoked by the Georgians, they reacted disproportionately. They didn’t have to react the way they did. I think at the root of their behavior, at least one surmise, is that it’s because of Georgia and the Ukraine membership applications to join NATO which in our view is the prerogative of these democratically elected governments to decide whether they want to become members of NATO. It shouldn’t be for their former Soviet masters. So, we are troubled by that. We will just have to see how that goes. I think Russia paid a certain price for what it did, not only in terms of its international reputation but, I think, even terms of confidence in their own economic system. Internally they had some knock-on effects in the economic sector as a result of what they did. Having said all that, Russia is on the Security Council. They are a nuclear power. They’re a huge country. They’ve got a lot of natural resources and are a very talented people. We just have to figure out how best under these somewhat adverse circumstances to work as well as possible. And, in areas where we can cooperate with them we should.
QUESTION: In (inaudible) in Northern Iraq, there are a lot of Iranian political refugees living in (inaudible) protected persons under (inaudible). I am very worried that your government leaving the protection of these protected persons to the Iraqi forces and that they have hostilities to these Iranian exiles. (inaudible) How can the US government leave these (inaudible) transfer of responsibility to Iraqi government sectors. I am worried that the US should keep protecting these protected persons (inaudible).
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Are you making the case for us to stay in Iraq? (laughter) Well, we’ve had talks with the Iraqi government about this and one of the issues that we have is that we have asked them for assurances that they will observe international humanitarian law when they take over responsibility for protecting these people which includes not returning them to Iran against their will. That’s the discussion that we’ve had with the government of Iraq and that’s the basis on which we will ultimately turn responsibility, I believe, for the security of the issue of Camp Bashra over to the government of Iraq. Frankly, in the end, it’s something were going to have to do in any event because our military presence will end, whether it’s 2011 as announced today as sort of the ultimate date by which we would remove our combat forces or some other date. Eventually, we are going to have our troops out of Iraq.
QUESTION: (inaudible) All in all I think that the cost of sanctions against Iraq has cost us, do you think that the actions against Iraq was worth the cost?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, I…you know a lot of people died under Saddam Hussein—the mass graves, the campaign against the Kurds. There were a lot of deaths. One of the sanctions—to go back to your question about Madeline Albright—one of the reason that—of course the oil for food program has now gotten a bad name. But, you may recall that the original purpose of the oil for food program was to allow—we had a total embargo, the international community had a total embargo on the export of Iraqi oil back after the first Gulf War. And then, under an arrangement with the UN Security Council exports were allowed and the revenues were put into a US escrow account which in turn then bought food for the Iraqi people so that children and others could be fed and therefore would not be subject to starvation. So, that was a positive outcome of the oil for food program. As for the loss of life, as I said in my remarks, I honestly think that Iraq does face a reasonably promising prospect at the moment and under a freer political system than it enjoyed before. And you know, earlier the lady was commenting about how the Iraqis feel about what we did. It’s very interesting the reactions that you get from people in Iraq about our having come into Iraq. Many of them, many are very, very supportive of what we did. They may not have—no one likes the violence, particularly if it touches their own lives, their own villages and so forth. But, I think on balance many of them are very, very supportive and large segments of society in Iraq are supportive of what we did.
QUESTION: Are you aware that Iraq was a democracy before the war in Iraq (inaudible)?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: I didn’t quite get the whole question. Was I aware that Iraq was a democracy?
QUESTION: …was a democracy prior to…well I think that’s a yes or a no.
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, I think there was a time back in the fifties or so. I think ever since the Bathe party took over it was a dictatorship of a party that fashioned itself after the National Socialists of Germany.
QUESTION: You talked in your speech a lot about places where extremism could be allowed to thrive without anybody hindering it. Somalia is a really good example of where that could happen right now (inaudible). And, my question to you is, what do you think the U.S. and, indeed the world community should have done, and should do, and when do you think that will happen and how long will it be before it takes place?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, I think that this is a question of priorities and how many different issues one can work on and pay attention to at any particular time. I mean, there are a number of ungoverned spaces in this world and, as we have all learned, there is just a limited amount of resources, time, troops, patience to deal with every single one of them and I think Somalia has suffered first from the bad experience with the United States in the 1990’s and the circumstances under which we left. It suffered from the fact that it has not had a government in Mogadishu for the last several years. But, things have gotten a little bit better in the last few years with the transitional government there, although it is faltering at this moment. And then also, some rather stronger regional governments in the Northern part in (inaudible) and Somaliland. But, I think it’s going to be a while still before the international community gets as fully engaged with Somalia as one might wish. Certainly, I think we have been very reluctant, in terms of sending our own forces there, or ramping up large scale programs. I think one thought might be to have some sort of UN peacekeeping effort in Somalia and that’s an issue we debate from time to time. I think that’s something that we ought to seriously consider is a peacekeeping effort in Somalia.
QUESTION: I was wondering if you would say anything about EU changes in structure (inaudible)
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: You know I don’t think that’s for us to comment on. I think what we do feel is that we favor a strong Europe. We consider Europe our most natural partners in world affairs because we are basically like-minded democracies that share a common perspective on world affairs. So, we want to spare no effort to work well with Europe but how Europe organizes itself I think is really going to have to be something that Europe itself is going to have to decide. And, it’s come a long way, by the way. When I went… I was explaining earlier when I was on my junior year abroad in Paris, 1958-59, when the treaty of Rome came into effect with six countries and it was basically just a customs union and look how far it’s come.
QUESTION: (inaudible) Hizballoh (inaudible) when you vote for governments that are not good for you. What do you think about that?
DEPUTY SECRETARY NEGROPONTE: Well, that’s their business. We’re not in this for toeing the line. This is a question of whether these countries themselves have governance available. We have to be committed to the proposition that your best chance to have reasonably good governance and responsive governance is through democratic processes. It has been our experience that countries that are democratically elected do develop strong bonds with each other. Actually, one of the things that we have promoted during this administration has been a community of democracies. There’s a lot of the countries have recently attained democracy which meet together from time to time to share their experiences. Look the world is going to become, probably, more multi-polar and toeing the line is not the standard against which we would judge a government’s performance. And, I think the real thing is that we want is that we think that it ought to be the people of these countries themselves that judge their government’s performance and that whatever election they have is not the last election.
Thank you very much.
Released on November 20, 2008